Twenty years ago, then-RISD student Shepard Fairey was working at the Watershed skate shop on Thayer Street when a newspaper photo of wrestler and actor (most famously in 1987's The Princess Bride) Andr√© Ren√© Roussimoff caught his eye. Fairey added the phrase "Andr√© the Giant has a posse" and silkscreened the new image onto stickers, which he distributed among his friends in the Providence skating community. The stickers quickly spread throughout the East Coast, where they hinted at a mysterious subcultural movement (perhaps with Mandy Patinkin and Wallace Shawn as members). Later stickers featured a cropped image of Andr√© and the sarcastic command "OBEY."
Fairey soon expanded his career, founding the San Diego-based BLK/MRKT advertising agency in 1996 and the OBEY clothing line in 2001. In October 2007, publicist Yosi Sargeant encouraged Fairey to develop a poster for his client, presidential hopeful Barack Obama. The red, white and blue stencil portrait was seen and parodied worldwide, and was acquired by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on January 7. Last month, Fairey's first career retrospective opened at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.
Fellow RISD student Alfred Read frequented the Watershed and befriended Fairey; Read went on to found Thayer's Nice Slice pizzeria in 2005. In January, when Fairey came to the East Coast to inaugurate the ICA exhibit, he and Read agreed to do a piece in Nice Slice, a venue Read describes as "an unorthodox place that has huge exposure." Read compares Fairey's mural, which depicts civil rights activist Angela Davis screaming out from a mass of red Andr√©s, to Jos√© Clemente Orozco's 1934 mural at Dartmouth College.
The Nice Slice installation is only one of a series of public pieces Fairey has done in conjunction with the ICA exhibit, mostly in Boston. After a piece of Fairey's on Westminster Street was removed, only the Nice Slice mural and one on the back wall of AS220's Mercantile Block space remain in Providence. The latter, which features a half-masked woman (identified as "Mujer Fatal" on Fairey's website), is no longer in its original condition, but bears the phrase "it's up my ass" in an anonymous Rhode Islander's scrawl.
Fairey and his work are prey not only to rival tags, but also to the long arm of the law. On February 7, when Fairey was en route to his opening at the ICA, the Boston Police Department arrested him for vandalism. Two days later, the New York Times reported Fairey's preemptive lawsuit against the Associated Press to maintain his ownership of the Obama image, which had been based on an AP photograph. (Fairey claims to have invested all proceeds in making more posters rather than taking any profit.)
Fairey is well acquainted with charges of vandalism and plagiarism. Last month, he bragged to the Times about his 14 (or 15, "if you count a brief detention in Japan") arrests while covertly tagging in San Francisco. His first run-in with copyright law occurred in the '90s when Titan Sports confronted him over ownership of the name "Andr√© the Giant," which promptly disappeared from his posters. In 2007, art historian Lincoln Cushing informed Fairey that an OBEY t-shirt featured Cuban artist Rene Mederos' image of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; the t-shirt was subsequently pulled from production. Artist Mark Vallen has compiled a list of Fairey's appropriations, many of them uncredited, along with an incendiary essay at his website, Art for a Change.
In a March 2008 interview with Mother Jones magazine, Fairey responded to accusations of plagiarism: "No artist has ever come to me and said, 'Hey, I'm unhappy that you took this and used it.' Most say, 'I really like what you're doing; I'm glad you did that. Now that we know each other, let's do a more official collaboration.' They see the way I'm using the images is not disrespectful, and they dig it." But photographer Stephen Shames, whose image of Angela Davis now adorns the wall of Nice Slice, doesn't dig it.
Shames worked as the official photographer of the Black Panther party in the 1960s. He took the picture of Davis, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery next to Fairey's Obama, in Oakland's Fermery Park at a 1968 rally supporting the release of jailed Panther leader Huey Newton (Shames later covered Davis' own sensational trial). Until reached by the Independent, Shames was unaware of his picture's use by Fairey; he now intends to pursue legal action. As he told the Independent, "Regardless of the legal issues, it's just plagiarism, it's just wrong to take someone else's work and say it's yours."
Shames particularly disapproves of a perceived hypocrisy on the part of Fairey, who told Mother Jones, "One of the reasons I started my clothing line was because I went into an Urban Outfitters and they were bootlegging my star logo on T-shirts." Last May Fairey issued a cease-and-desist letter to Austin artist Baxter Orr for disseminating an image of Andr√© wearing a respiratory mask. Shames calls such litigation "the definition of chutzpah." He contrasts Fairey's work against that of Andy Warhol, saying, "I think [Fairey] is a thief, as opposed to other people who actually comment on American culture. This isn't a commercial image; it isn't in the commercial American culture in the same way."
Indeed, the specter of Warhol, along with that of George Orwell, who shared Warhol's awe of mass media, haunts the ICA show. There is an image of Andr√© the Giant with Marilyn Monroe's hair, and one of him on a Campbell's Soup can. Warhol is the only artist featured on a wall of portraits that includes such radical political figures as Angela Davis and Warhol subject Mao Zedong. In the next room are covers designed for Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984; several posters contain an unattributed image of Big Brother taken from Michael Anderson's 1956 film adaptation of the latter book. Yet Fairey is rarely able to synthesize Warhol's pop apathy with Orwell's punk outrage.
In his 1990 "OBEY Manifesto," Fairey wrote: "The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities." But this intention is undermined by Fairey's shift in subject matter from the absurd figure of Andr√© the Giant to the Generation X pantheon. It's hard to imagine Fairey depicting Ian Mackaye with the same curious ambivalence with which Warhol treated a soup can.
In a 1970 article, Tom Wolfe coined the phrase "radical chic" to describe a party thrown for the Black Panthers in Leonard Bernstein's Upper East Side apartment. The phrase is apt for Fairey's similar attempts to appropriate the Panthers' (and Guevara's and Mao's and Mackaye's) glamour. In the Mother Jones interview, Fairey used his philanthropy to deflect charges of exploitation: "I just raised almost $100,000 for Darfur. I challenge anybody to fuck with that, know what I mean? It's not like I'm just jumping on some cool rebel cause for the sake of exploiting it for profit. People like to talk shit, but it's usually to justify their own apathy." "Apathy" could hardly describe Stephen Shames, who now spends his time running the non-profit LEAD Uganda initiative. Fairey's day job, meanwhile, is running Studio Number One, the ad agency behind campaigns for Honda and Red Bull; Fairey also profits from the various merchandise sold on his website, obeygiant.com.
With Obama, Fairey finally applied his talents to a figure as fresh as Andr√©. Obama--who was not yet his party's nominee at the time of the poster's conception--was as much an object for the viewer's speculations and projections as for Fairey's reverence. For the second time, Fairey participated in the creation of a symbol instead of taking one that already existed.
JONAH WOLF B'12 has a posse: The College Hill Independent.